The golden age of the Ballets Russes 1909 - 1929
Dictator, devil, charlatan, sorcerer and charmer. Not a particularly endearing description, but when applied to Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes, it curiously feels like a compliment. The V&A is paying homage to the patron with an exhibition reflecting the influence his dance company had, and continues to have, across the Arts. The collection includes an elaborate range of costumes, paintings, sculpture, prints and archive footage created by designers and artists such as Degas, Matisse, Picasso, Yves Saint Laurent and Jean Cocteau.
The avant-garde nature of Ballets Russes, with its striking set designs, beautifully elaborate costumes and ground-breaking choreography was an instant success when launched to the public in 1909. Diaghilev was a true innovator who sought to create something new in dance by ensuring that every element of each production stood up on its own and that the experience was a spectacle for the viewer. The scores he commissioned from the likes of Stravinsky and Prokofiev provide a lasting legacy as they continue to be performed all over the world today and in the world of fashion, designer Yves Saint Laurent has created a number of collections drawing influence from the costumes worn by the dancers.
Because of Diaghilev's far-reaching influence, the exhibition covers an immense variety of styles, genres and artists. And there is a lot to get through. Dominating one of the rooms is an enormous backdrop for the production "The Firebird" designed by Natalia Goncharova. At more than 50ft in height, it's an awe-inspiring image of old Russia in opulent oranges and blues and guaranteed to make the spectator feel very tiny indeed! The range of costumes on display is impressive too. Leon Bakst's costumes for principal dancer Vaslav Nijinsky feature silk tunics embossed with hundreds of metal studs and pearls and embroidered with applique roses and circles. The sheer detail making the costumes heavy and difficult to dance in, a definite case of style winning over comfort. A range of designs by Yves Saint Laurent from the 70s and 90s are particularly interesting as they show how Russian style from the 1900s with a Middle Eastern twist translates to an evolving contemporary look. Featuring a velvet bandeau top edged with beads and full velvet embroidered skirt, high waisted mustard trousers decorated with red sequins and topped off with a jaunty fez to a gorgeous signature harlequin jacket with velvet knickerbockers and silk tassel belt.
Diaghilev certainly possessed an enviable roster of artists on which he could call upon. Matisse, de Chirico and Picasso to name but a few, who all lent their talents to designing sets or capturing images from productions. Their work is well represented in this exhibition and the variety of styles makes for interesting and diverse viewing. My personal favourite was a lovely painting by Degas entitled "The Ballet from Robert Le Diable". It features the ghostly apparitions of dead nuns on stage, whilst we the audience are placed at the front of the stalls behind the orchestra. The set backdrop in the painting gives a real sense of depth, and the contrast between the wistful figures on stage and the darkly dressed orchestra members is striking. Another piece worth a mention is a delightful bronze sculpture of Nijinsky by Rodin. His form finely chiselled with muscular definition depicting strength but with his knee raised up to his chest, looks ready to leap into action. It's quite small and difficult to find in amongst all the treasures on offer, but worth seeking out.
Before visiting the exhibition my knowledge of Diaghilev and Ballets Russes was limited. Having seen the breadth of work he instigated and realised the extent of his influence on the arts, I would highly recommend a visit. The collection offers a really diverse range of work and there should be something on offer to suit everyone.
The exhibition runs from Saturday 25th September 2010 to Sunday 9th January 2011 at the Victoria & Albert Museum
V&A, South Kensington, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL
Call: +44 (0)20 7942 2000
(Jane writes for and edits a cross-platform TV blog)